“Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it” sang Eric Idle at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I must admit that many of my blog posts have been pretty downbeat in tone, particularly since the June 23rd result. So, let’s try a thought experiment and go in for some positive thinking.
Let’s start by looking at a few items of good news from recent days.
Donald Trump made a complete arse of himself in the first TV debate with Hillary Clinton.
Jeremy Corbyn did a pretty good job in his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference. It was a much more assured performance than last year and a step towards being seen as a more credible future prime minister.
The Labour Party now has well over 500,000 members, making it the largest political party in Europe (outside Russia).
The only concrete policy announcement from Theresa May, on grammar schools, is a real stinker.
George Osborne’s policy of austerity and “hit the poorest hardest” seems to have been dropped by his successor.
Let’s develop some positive thinking flowing from these news items.
Two more opportunities, in TV debates, remain to show Trump’s narcissistic lack of self-control and of fitness to be elected. So, the spine-chilling threat to the world of a President Trump seems to have receded somewhat. With the prospect of World War Three now a little less likely in the near term, we can perhaps begin to think a little about the future.
A Labour Agenda?
Points 2 and 5 above may point the way to changing the terms of the debate on the economy. Political opinion in much of the western world is questioning the assumptions of free market fundamentalism. It seems likely that we will hear much less from Philip Hammond on austerity than his predecessor. This implies even the Tories may now believe it’s a vote loser. They still have a way to go to catch up with expert opinion, such as that of the International Monetary Fund. But it is an agenda that both Jeremy Corbyn and John Hammond have been consistently stating for the past year. The new, younger Labour Party members may begin to convince people in face-to-face conversations in pubs and other meeting places. An optimistic reading would be that Labour would begin to look credible to offer a wider, positive appeal for the future, with the Tories associated with a failed economic dogma of the past.
Theresa May’s Judgement
It seems many were tempted to think of Theresa May as a “safe pair of hands” to steer Britain through the choppy waters of EU exit negotiations. (Even I said she was the least bad option in the circumstances.) With her grammar schools announcement, she immediately encountered strong opposition from all education experts and practically the whole of the teaching profession. It is only a matter of time before she adds more opponents. These are the parents of the 80% of schoolchildren who would be disadvantaged – and possibly psychologically damaged – by being branded second class citizens at an arbitrary age.
We have had the appointment of two loose cannons and a disgraced former defence minister as the triumvirate leading the UK’s EU negotiations. It is surely only a matter of time before one of these super-egos seriously screws up. This will reflect poorly on May’s judgement in their appointment. Not such a safe pair of hands, after all.
The Bright Side
The cynical may see this all as hopelessly wishful thinking: my title for this piece was, instead, “positive thinking”. That Eric Idle song mentioned at the start is, after all, entitled Always Look on the Bright Side of Life! (Supply your own whistling here, please…)
I was in conversation with a fellow experienced Chair of Governors the other day. She spoke of “one of those heart-sinking moments” when she heard that Theresa May was planning to revive grammar schools, now confirmed. Between us, we have over 40 years’ experience volunteering as school governors. We agreed it almost feels like we’ve wasted our time all these years trying to help the schools we serve to raise standards and life chances for our pupils.
I call the proposal madness, sheer madness, for several reasons set out later in this post.
I have a broad picture of education policy and practice over my lifetime. I believe it is true that, back in the 1960s and 70s, education policy was, to some extent, driven by fashion. The latest ideas, the sexier-sounding the better, were implemented with little more basis than he (or she) who shouts loudest. Some of these ideas worked and have been retained in some form. Some didn’t and have fallen by the wayside. The most radical change in this period was the near-universal abolition of the 11-plus and the growth of comprehensive education. (More comprehensives opened under Margaret Thatcher’s period as Education Secretary than any other’s.)
The period from the late 70s through to 2000 saw a developing professionalism in the practice of pedagogy. University education departments and institutions such as the National College for Teaching and Leadership carried out research into what works. There was a steady upward trend in evidence-led changes to education policy. Key initiatives in the New Labour years included two important reforms above all:
Every Child Matters, an antidote to narrow exam results as the only indicator of success. It stressed that every child, whatever their background or circumstances, should have the support they need to stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.
Sure Start centres, in recognition of the research which showed the importance of early years learning. Neuroscientific research has found that a child’s brain is 25% developed at birth, 80% developed by the aged of three. A US study found that the vocabulary used by three year olds in professional households was wider than that of the parents from the most deprived households. Those early years are crucial. Disadvantaged kids are way behind those more fortunate, long before they even start school.
The steady progress in implementing what works came to an abrupt halt in 2010 with the arrival of Michael Gove as Education Secretary. Policy making by evidence was replaced by ministerial whim. The logic behind the creation of academy schools was turned on its head. Free schools were introduced, spending public funds where groups lobbied for one, rather than where new places were needed. Local authorities were stripped of their powers to open new schools. This has led to the situation where local government has the legal duty to find a school place for everyone on their patch but without the powers to make it happen. The free schools programme was based on a Swedish initiative that was already being disowned by the politician who had introduced the scheme to Sweden. Funding for early years was slashed and 800 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010.
Compare this situation to Germany, where education is a non-political issue and structures and exam standards have barely changed in decades. In England, constant tinkering with curriculum and exam structures have left teacher confused and overworked. In the last school year alone, 14 changes to the Key Stage 2 curriculum were announced and, on the date pupils sat their SATs exams, the government hadn’t decided what the standards would be for the results.
No wonder teachers are leaving the profession in their droves or applying to emigrate to saner pastures abroad. When coupled to the shortfall in places filled on teacher training courses, I predict a major crisis of teacher shortages in 3-5 years’ time.
It’s Gonna Be Tougher
And now, to cap it all, we have Theresa May, without any electoral mandate, announcing the potential expansion of grammar schools. This is based on the entirely false argument that such schools aid social mobility. My earlier blog post, Stuck Inside of Mobile, explains why this is plain wrong. Briefly, it was the expansion in middle-class jobs in the economy of the 1950s and 60s, together with much more egalitarian tax and fiscal policies, which created opportunities for schoolchildren to find better jobs than their parents. It is merely coincidence that we had a more selective system at the time.
Even if the argument were true, times have changed significantly. Selective education at 11 was at a time when only 7% of students went to university (it’s now nearly 50%) and we had a major manufacturing base to absorb the 80-90% of 11-plus failures into work. But the social stigma and psychological damage of being branded a failure at eleven would be as true today as it was then.
Schools work best when there is a reasonable number of brighter children and pushy parents to support teachers in raising expectations and when the proportion of children from low-achieving, dysfunctional families is small. Too many of the latter can absorb a disproportionate amount of energy for school staff, That’s energy which could be applied for the benefit of all. With inspiring leadership and excellent teaching, good schools can close the prior attainment gap over the whole duration of a child’s schooling. Putting the majority of children into the slow lane at the arbitrary age of eleven makes no sense and offends every idea of helping the disadvantaged.
Remaining grammar schools have 3% of the intake entitled to free school meals, compared to 15% for all schools. Better-off parents can pay for private tuition to help their children pass the 11-plus. Good evidence exists of the effect of selection on pupil achievement. In selective areas, pupils in selective schools perform, on average, very slightly better than they would have done in a non-selective system. But the vast majority of children at, in effect, secondary moderns, perform far worse than their comprehensive-taught counterparts elsewhere. In short, selection makes it tougher overall to succeed.
Who’s Goin’ to Suffer?
The analysis is very clear: the disadvantaged children suffer worst under a selective system.
I’m often intrigued to see what hatred, distortions, delusions and lies are spewed out in the Daily Mail, or at least by peeking at its front-page headlines. Today’s was an absolute classic of its kind. The sub-heading read “All schools could become grammar schools”. How, exactly? For every grammar schools created, you need at least three secondary moderns. Or wait… I look forward to the apoplectic Daily Mail headlines of the future when 80% of schoolchildren have failed the entrance test for all the schools in their area and are roaming the streets in feral gangs!
My earlier blog post, Confused and Bewildered, took a sceptical view of Theresa May’s inaugural speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street. You know, the one where she promised to work for the disadvantaged. I said then that new Tory Prime Ministers have form on doing the opposite of what they say in the first flush of their appointment. Well, May has just taken the first step in that dishonourable tradition.
In memory of Prince Buster (Cecil Campbell) 1938-2016
Like many of us, I’ve got used to seeing reports of the latest stupid, outrageous comments of Donald Trump. But occasionally, I’m still left startled. This time, it was by a single word: “beautiful”. He had returned to a continuing theme of his presidential campaign: his plan to build what, on this occasion, he described as an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” between the US and Mexico. The long list of adjectives was delivered, punch by punch, with an impassioned fury – in contrast to the mumbled speech in Mexico the day before, where he said, without conviction, how much he loved Mexicans. The other adjectives he used I could understand – in the context of the speech – but “beautiful”? That struck a chill in my heart.
Before someone sets out to build a real, physical wall, i.e. one designed to keep one set of people apart from another, some things must happen first in that person’s head. The idea and plan for the wall must be made: where, what materials, how high and so on. Before that idea can be formed, the builder must have some motive for building the wall. This takes the form of a “wall in the head”: some idea of the “us” on this side of the wall and the “them” on the other. This distinction between “us” and “them” requires dividing people into two homogenous groups divided by some characteristic. We call this stereotyping, bigotry or just plain old lazy thinking.
Walls in the Head
In music and literature, as well as journalism, much has been said and written over the years about the walls we build in our heads. These walls are built for various reasons: to disguise shyness and poor interpersonal skills, as an emotional shield and as a way of avoiding any consideration of the opinions or needs of “the other”. The consequences of such mental walls are usually destructive, often self-destructive.
Pink Floyd produced a whole double album, The Wall, with a film to follow, on the subject. Great swathes of the Paul Simon songbook are devoted to the idea: examples include I Am a Rock, Something So Right (“I got a wall around me…”). Much of the work of Franz Kafka inhabits this world of isolation.
In the real world, think of the euphemistically named “peace barriers” in Northern Ireland during the height of the “Troubles”; think of the pain and misery on both sides of Israel’s security “fence”. Think also of the joy and optimism which flowed from the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. In earlier, and presumed more barbaric, times, we had the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall. That’s just a few.
In my blog post This Blinkered Isle just before the EU referendum, I lamented the fact that the entire public debate consisted of opposing appeals to self-interest or national interest. There was no one who took time to remind the voters of more collective benefits. Take, for example, the journey taken by millions formerly behind the Iron Curtain (another wall) from oppression to democracy, often inspired by the ideals and principles – and membership rules – of the EU.
More generally, few voices are ever raised in public reminding us of our common humanity: what unites us, rather than divides. In the UK, the Labour Party should be the natural home for many of these voices. Tragically, in its current state, Labour seems to expend all its energies building little walls between its various factions, rather than painting a unifying picture of the common good. Andrew Copson, head of the British Humanist Association, does make speeches from time to time around these themes – usually ignored by the mainstream media. As an atheist and humanist, I am simultaneously uplifted and embarrassed that the only voices reported who are stressing these ideals seem to come from a pope or an archbishop.
Take a Little Time
Now, to return for a moment to Paul Simon. The fuller lyric above is: “I got a wall around me that you can’t even see. It took a little time to get next to me”. The Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement is a good example of taking (more than) a little time – and not a little courage – to get the warring parties to talk meaningfully to each other. The horrifying rise in hate crimes since the referendum is just one symptom of how divided we’re becoming. Surely we can take a little more time getting to know each other – and a little less time building walls. Now that would be beautiful.